Combat your stress levels to improve your health

Too many of us underestimate the effect that stress can have on our lives – and how this can go on to impact our health and wellbeing. It’s pretty obvious that stress is a contributor to our ever-expanding waistlines – we all admit to reaching for fatty and sugary foods when we are under stress, simply because they trigger those pleasure zones in the brain and make us feel better. What’s more, cortisol (one of our “stress hormones”) encourages weight gain around our waist – which is very bad for our health. And yet, we seem to be under more and more stress, struggling to meet deadlines, juggling roles within our family environment and social circles and working longer and longer hours.

So, perhaps it’s about time that we take a long, hard look at how our stress levels are impacting us, so that we can see just how important it is that we start trying to combat them!

Here are just two of the numerous new pieces of research on stress levels and their impact on our health:

Stressed + overweight = increased risk of illness

Previous studies have shown that obesity causes low-grade inflammation in our bodies – which can be linked to various chronic diseases. And we also know that stress can cause a similar inflammatory response. But one recent piece of research has shown what happens when you add the two together – and the results aren’t good.

When lean and overweight people were subjected to a day of psychological stress tests they both showed an increase in the levels of IL-6, a chemical in the blood that indicates inflammation. However, after a second day of stress tests, the obese participants had almost doubled their levels of IL-6, whilst that of the lean subjects stayed the same. Put simply, being overweight AND under stress significantly increases the level of inflammation in our bodies. Of course, we can’t be sure from this study that this will definitely equate to an increased risk of diseases as a result, but it is yet another piece of a big jigsaw showing that too much poor-quality food and too little good-quality time is not a recipe for a long and happy life.

Exercise as stress management?

Of course, if you can remove the source of your stresses then that is great – but this is often easier said than done. One of the best ways to cope with stress is actually to exercise. Not only does it seem to trigger endorphins or ‘happy hormones’ but it also helps to clear your mind (it’s hard to worry about work when you’re concentrating on breathing!).

A recent research study from Canada found that only 40 per cent of Canadians exercise to cope with stress – and no doubt the stats aren’t any better here in the UK! A survey of nearly 40,000 people found that exercise was way down the list of 13 coping behaviours such as problem-solving, looking on the bright side, trying to relax, talking to others, blaming oneself, praying or even just sticking your head in the sand and ignoring stress!

What’s more, exercise has numerous other benefits besides being a stress release – so it is worth thinking about how you cope with stress and how exercise could play a greater part in this. However, to avoid the exercise itself becoming a source of stress, you need to firmly put aside a time to do it and make sure you find an activity that you enjoy (even if the enjoyment comes from the satisfaction of having completed it rather than the exercise itself!).

One last thing, if you are wavering. So many of us think we are too busy for exercise – but believe us when we say, half an hour spent exercising will increase your efficiency and clear your head for the rest of the day (especially as you get fitter) which will more than compensate for that time you think you can’t afford to spend in the gym, the pool or on a brisk walk.